Thank you for reading! Me and my coauthor Darinost are gradually combining forces and blogs, so the joint comment section for our stories is currently located on discord! Come on in and let us know what you thought, we don’t bite.
Yuki fell silent as she walked along the forest path with Merielle. The selkie looked at her appraisingly, but she didn’t speak… she waited for her mistress. The nogitsune took another few dozens steps before she spoke again. “That was the last night we were all together,” Yuki admitted. “That one, silly dinner. I find… I find that I think about that night often these days. Before that night, everything was one way. After it, another.”
Thankfully, half an hour hadn’t been anywhere near enough time to tell any of the interesting parts of the story to Hanabi. Telling her story in third person, like it was about someone else, was difficult… and yet, at the same time, strangely seductive. It felt almost too easy to distance herself from the person she had been, the mistakes she’d made. It hadn’t been her doing them – it had been that other fox. Yusika was innocent.
It was a seductive and stupid thought… maybe even a dangerous one.
Merielle looked hesitant. “Are you… do you want to stop, Mistress?” she asked, concern plain on her face.
Yuki shook her head. “Let’s just get it over with,” she said, looking up. “Already started ripping off the bandage.” She looked up with annoyance at the afternoon sky from beneath the canopy. “Assuming this supposed expert has even the slightest idea what she’s doing and we can get this done before one of us manages to die of old age.” Yuki raised her voice, putting her hands on her hips. “Are you sure you can do this?” she demanded.
If Yuki had liked Hanabi almost immediately, the spiky-haired sentry had inspired instant dislike for the kitsune. Shura looked like a punk, and the first thing that Yuki had noticed about her was that she was chewing, and repeatedly popping, a piece of gum. That had been annoying on the first pop. By the 100th, it was beginning to reach maddening levels.
“Yes, I… I’ve almost got everything ready for us to start,” the sentry said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself at least as much as anyone else. According to Hanabi, she was probably the best person in the village at using the kind of suggestive foxfire illusions required to make the village wards work properly – she had, supposedly, managed to put them together temporarily during their escape from the Paradisium. After only knowing her for a few minutes, however, Yuki was beginning to suspect her reputation was unearned. Not only did she seem to only barely know what she was doing, but she didn’t seem to have much in the way of confidence either, and that kind of force of personality was critical to making the compulsion to turn away seem real.
“The fae magic shattered the ward vessels, so we have to collect all the pieces and put them back together before we can do anything with them,” Shura said, looking down at the couple dozen assembled fragments in front of her. “They need to be just right or they won’t work. I think… I think I’ve almost got it.”
The way she had them set up now was wrong, laughably wrong, just like the last seven arrangements she’d tried. From the way she was staring at them, it was obvious that she had no idea how they were actually supposed to go and was trying to figure it out on her own.
Yuki had been trying to hold back and let the sentry do what should have been a simple task before the real work, but they were going to be here all fucking day and night at this rate. “Oh, for crying out loud,” she finally hissed, losing the last of her patience. “You don’t even know where to start!” She stepped forward and shooed Shura away from the fragments with an irritated flick of a tail, then quickly began putting the pieces in their proper order, rearranging them until they – mostly – fit together. They were damaged, there was no getting around that. Someone was going to have to make a new one, but getting the protective illusions back up was the most important thing. Without them, Hanei was all but naked.
Shura seemed to wilt beneath Yuki’s anger, watching as ‘Yusika’ rebuilt the wardstone effortlessly. She probably considered it amazing that someone who hadn’t been in Hanei for centuries, who had never worked with the stones before, could just figure it out the first time she looked at them. What she didn’t know was that one of Seijun’s first exercises for Yuki, when she had first been learning how to build in the subtle compulsions necessary to fake the sense of touch with an illusion, had been to make one of these things from scratch. It had taken two years, working it out painstakingly by herself with Seijun giving small but cryptic clues that forced her to think through the process by herself in detail, but the lesson had worked… by the time she was finished, she not only understood the wardstone better than she did her own hands, but she understood the way it interacted with magic, why it worked, and why it held a pattern.
But Shura didn’t know that. She only saw someone doing something that she’d failed at with impossible ease, and seemed to shrink further with every second. Throughout even that, however, she kept chewing her damn gum.
“There are still six of these, right?” Yuki said as she knelt over the stone, beginning to seek out with her foxfire and looking for the patterns of the old illusion. Destroyed or not, they were still there… subtle but present, like the grooves run through tiny depressions by centuries of rain. Making illusions with witchfire was more difficult than with traditional foxfire, but not by much… and she had had plenty of time to practice. All she needed to do was rebuild this illusion and the other foxes would be able to keep it u-
A growl passed Yuki’s lips, and she had no choice but to roll her eyes once more as her face met her hand in frustration. “You know,” she said, her voice chilly, “I owe you an apology. There’s nothing ruder than someone who doesn’t have a fucking clue what she’s doing interrupting someone who’s trying to teach her something.” A predatory grin creased Yuki’s face. “I don’t know what came over me. You’re the expert, after all. So obviously what I should be doing is sitting down, shutting up, and letting you work. Here!” She stood and gestured to the wardstone. “It’s ready for you. Go ahead, show me how to do it.” Yuki raised one eyebrow and sneered. “Because you do know how, right? You’re not just some idiot who doesn’t know anything but how to dump her foxfire into one of these things after someone else has done all the actual work of setting it up?”
Shura shook herself like she was shaking off a funk. “Yeah, I, I do,” she said, slowly at first but increasingly sure of herself as she went. “I know how to do this. Watch, I’ll show you what to do.”
“Good,” Yuki said, narrowing her eyes. “Because I’m not out here to play fucking games with you.”
“Really?” Shura said, a hint of a growl in her own voice now. “Seems to me like you’re the type of woman that loves playing games with people.” She knelt down smoothly, still chewing her gum with gusto, but Yuki noticed she didn’t drop the spear she carried. In fact, she hadn’t put it down even once yet, and she seemed to be gripping it quite tightly.
“Quit stalling,” Yuki snapped. “Show me how it’s done, teacher.” Yuki caught herself looking rather intently at Shura as she knelt and called up her foxfire, beginning to pour it into the wardstone. At least she was showing a little bit of spirit now, when pushed… not that indecisive weakness and meek eagerness to please. It was a much better look on her. Still, frustration was a much bigger part of Yuki’s mindset as she looked at the sentry than enjoyment was, even if a little bit of both fought for the fox’s attention.
Shura gave a small shrug, and Yuki felt some of her tension leak away as the sentry knelt before the wardstone. She hovered over it and laid her hand on its surface. Yuki was able to finally calm down from her potential outburst and came up from behind Shura as she witnessed the fox use her hand to gather small streams of foxfire as it flickered around her tails. Foxfire usually wasn’t visible like this, not unless manifested, but so much of it was leaving her body and being poured into an eternal container that it gave off light in the process.
Initially, Yuki was a little impressed as she watched the small streams of foxfire energy begin to coalesce into one beam of energetic light, winding its way into the stone as Shura’s will began to twist into the proper patterns. That quickly faded, however, as she watched what the girl did with it. Making an illusion was one thing… mostly an instinctive process. It could be done on the seat of your pants… visualize something, and intuit the pattern that foxfire needed to take to create the shape… it was so easy, in fact, that it was generally the first thing children learned to do, and they figured it out on their own just playing around with their young abilities. Making something lasting, however, was far more difficult… and required much more precision. It wasn’t art… it was math, and even though Yuki had never seen this exact pattern before it only took a few seconds for the more experienced fox to tell that it wasn’t going to work.
“You’re not doing it right,” the nogitsune said, her breath landing on the back of Shura’s neck, leaning forward and keeping a close eye on what the blue haired girl was doing.
“Would you back the hell off?” Shura snapped, a bit of sweat beading on her forehead. The beams of light began to form a small triangle and other small shapes, but they weren’t weaving together right. A moment later, they dissipated like they were never there, the energy falling apart. Frustrated, Shura growled and tried again, her eyes closing as she focused on the task, her whole body trembling.
It fell apart faster than last time.
Yuki rolled her eyes as she watched the sentry keep struggling to weave the foxfire streams together to form the ward. The nogitsune was growing impatient… no, more like she was growing indignant. This was the best the village had to offer? This paltry display? Hanabi had said that the village had been improving these wards for centuries and the sentry in charge of maintaining them wasn’t even capable of putting them together? “This is so stupid…” Yuki said to herself as she stood there witnessing all of Shura’s dismal failures. She waited some more, hoping against hope to be surprised, but no luck.
“Can you explain what she’s doing?” Merielle asked as she watched.
“Trying to impress me,” Yuki said loudly, with a sarcastic look on her face. “And failing miserably at it.”
Merielle looked on, uncomfortable, as Shura tried again and again, growing more and more tired. “By the goddess, what the hell are you doing?” Yuki snarled, her patience at an end.
Finally, Shura gave up, sinking to the ground and panting. She looked broken, and bitter tears ran down her face. Yuki didn’t have time for this shit – she pushed Shura to the side, kneeling down herself as she conjured up witchfire. It had been seven hundred years since the last time she had done this… but all the knowledge of how it worked was burned into her mind from the years she had spent working with them, training, and building her own… she couldn’t have forgotten how to do this if she tried. She conjured up the power and wove it into the patterns she had just watched Shura try and fail to make. She released the power and let it flow into the stone, and it went smoother than water running off of oil.
Yuki stood up, disgusted, brushing off her knees. “So that was your big play?” Yuki snapped. “Humiliating yourself and wasting my time with your stupid bullshit?” On some level, the nogitsune knew that she was venting, that she was taking her anger out on the woman… but she was too mad to care. The village had been burned down, its residents tortured and raped and maimed, and the people who were supposed to protect it had been incompetent children like this playing with toys they didn’t understand. Yuki wasn’t angry… she was furious. “You don’t know shit! You can’t do shit! Come on, Red! This bitch is fucking worthless… we’ll fix the rest of these ourselves.”
Shura could only look down at the wardstone as Yuki strode off, her tails flicking back and forth in her anger, and seemed to shrink before the words. She laid her fingers down on the ragged edge of the broken wardstone, her face twisted in disappointment and self loathing as the other two disappeared into the woods, and silently she began to cry.
“And you don’t think you were a little bit harsh with her, mistress?” Merielle asked as she kept pace with the angry nogitsune.
“I’m not sure I was harsh enough,” Yuki said. The further behind she left the other fox, the less angry she was, but her indignation hasn’t shrunk any as she got further away from the embarrassment that was Shura. “I swear when Akari hears about this she’s going to have a fit. The goddess and her servants can’t know about this… that their people were being protected so incompetently. They would have done something if they’d known.”
Yuki, followed by Merielle, hiked over a couple of rolling hills and through a beautiful, lush forest. Inside the woods, it was easy to forget the devastation to the village just beyond them… Paragon hadn’t bothered to trash the forest itself meaningfully. “I don’t fucking need her to tell me how to restart these wards. I can get it done myself. Then, over dinner tonight, maybe I can get Ichika off my fucking tails when I explain, in goddess damned detail, just how bad of a job her people are doing defending this place.”
Yuki hopped over a couple of fallen trees before she started looking around. “The second one should be around… here… Ah!” The stone wasn’t easy to notice, broken as it was, but the guard hut nearby it hadn’t been destroyed as thoroughly as the other one had. Thankfully, this stone wasn’t as damaged, either… it was broken in half but not in the many pieces the other one had fallen to, just hidden beneath a fallen trunk. She wiped it clean with her hand, pushing it back into place. “Fuck that bitch,” Yuki said as she began to put her hand on the stone. “Why did those idiots change the spell pattern, anyway? What made them think this idiocy was an improvement on the design?”
Merielle looked on as a swarm of foxfire lights came up. Within thirty seconds Yuki was able to weave and mold the foxfire streams into a working ward. “There!” a bitter Yuki proclaimed as Merielle looked on with amazement. “That’s so fucking hard.”
“What are these supposed to do?” Merielle asked.
“They keep an illusion going… a really strong one,” Yuki explained as she got up, striding over to check out the guard station. “Sort of like the ones I wrap us in most of the time in Kyoto… not just a visual illusion, but a compulsion. ‘Ignore me,’ it says. ‘Go away’.” The nogitsune shook her head. “Illusions like that actually aren’t all that draining on our foxfire… the problem is the focus. You need to keep spending effort to keep the illusion from unravelling. Keeping up an illusion like that over the whole village up all the time would be exhausting for a hundred kitsune working in shifts, assuming you could find that many with enough strength and skill to do it at all.”
She gestured at the stone. “So we cheat. The idea of the wardstones is that once you put the energy in, in the right pattern to power the illusion, it can’t change shape if you don’t focus on it. It doesn’t take any concentration to hold the magic in place anymore, so it stays there until it runs out.”
Yuki winced as she looked into the watchpost and found it bloody and ruined on the inside. She turned her attention to the woods, striking out towards the next point of the hexagon. “They were one of the greatest inventions of my forebearers… a masterpiece of craftsmanship and a genius use of our magic. Generations of foxes built on them and improved upon them, keeping Hanei safe. Even the jorogumo could only penetrate it with the weight of numbers and fencing themselves in with the bodies of their fallen. The best minds of Hanei created a work of art. And it took… what, maybe two or three generations of these children to ruin them?”
The two women walked in silence until Yuki located the third one, shattered into pieces just like the first one had been. She narrowed her eyes in anger as she looked at it. “Pathetic,” she growled. “See how they shattered? With the first one, I assumed the brutes took a sledgehammer to it or something during the siege… but no.” She ran her fingers along one of the groves in the stone. “See this? And this?” Yuki traced another line in the stone, right along one of the breaks. “This pattern is wrong. See this… and this? These are stress breaks. Trying to brute force your way through a pattern like this with your own magic is basically like a battering ram, trying to bend the pattern out of shape until it isn’t effective. The power pushes outward, trying to disperse when that happens, so you need to shape the wardstone patterns to be strong against that kind of stress. Otherwise, when a big bear like one of the Sidhe comes along and throws their weight against it, it pushes outward. The more pressure it’s under, the harder it pushes, until…”
Yuki sighed. “Crack.” She shook her head and began reassembling the stone into something at least marginally sufficient. “The foxfire wears grooves in these over time. When they wear enough, the energy won’t keep to the right patterns anymore, won’t keep a line even under the normal stress of lack of focus. You can’t fix that… you have to replace the stone. Have one of the artisans remake it. And these idiots did it wrong.” Yuki forced the last piece into place with unnecessary force, and the stones clicked as they slapped together. “A dozen Unseelie shouldn’t have been able to get through this. It should have taken several of their high nobles, or their damn Queen. Instead, these weren’t just broken. They were shattered, by one winter fae by herself.” She knelt and began to assemble the spell. “Pathetic.”
“Not everyone is as talented with foxfire as you are, mistress,” Merielle pointed out mildly.
Yuki made a disgusted sound. “See, this is what I mean about the prophecy being bullshit. It’s got nothing to do with talent, Red. You think I was born knowing how to do this crap? It’s just a learned skill like any other. I can do it because I paid attention and worked hard. That’s why that blue haired child pisses me off… because the idiot couldn’t be bothered to learn properly. There were plenty of people who could have taught her how to do this at least as good as I-”
The unfinished pattern of the ward dissipated as she stopped focusing on it, trying to grab hold of the thought that had just occurred to her and chase it from her brain… but the stubborn thought wouldn’t leave. The veterans. When Yuki had… when she had… done what she did… they had been the ones to follow her. Those that looked up to her the most. Those that she had respected the most… the most skilled foxfire users, the most skilled artisans. Her friends. Her mentors, and their students. They had followed her into the fire.
And they had come up scorched black.
Yuki’s hand trembled as she held onto the imperfect wardstone. The ones from her time would have lasted… how long? About a year, give or take. The artisans they gave them to to copy and replace the broken ones wouldn’t have been taught by Seijun, or by Yuki, or by Hikaru, or by Taki… they wouldn’t have understood how the pattern worked, wouldn’t have been able to do anything but look at it and do their best to copy it. Copy the pattern that had already been worn down and made imprecise… some lines no longer at the right angle, others too deep. Then, next year, they would have done it again. And again. And again.
A copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.
How many years before no one remembered the precise form of the spell anymore? How many until the stones themselves stopped working when the sentries tried to match the pattern? How many until they had needed to start inventing a new pattern, a new wardstone, from scratch… not out of pride or arrogance, not out of some idea of improvement, but because they couldn’t figure out how the old ones had worked any longer?
Yuki wanted to laugh. She had been harsh with Shura. She always was when she was trying to shirk her own responsibility. “This is my fault,” she whispered, her vision blurring. “All of this… I left the village naked. I might as well have cut their throats myself.”
“You didn’t invade the village, Yuki,” Merielle said firmly. “And you didn’t control their choices over the last centuries.”
“No,” Yuki said, growling as she conjured up the spell again. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t the one she knew… that it was something that just yesterday had been unfamiliar to her. It made sense to her the moment she had seen the sentry do it… she had seen what she was trying to do. “I didn’t. Instead, I just cut their hands off and told them to look after themselves.”
Merielle hesitated. “So what are you going to do then?” the selkie asked.
Do. What was she doing to do. It was always just that simple for that damn woman. Yuki finished with the wardstone and swallowed, leaning back. “Red… would you mind giving me a few hours? Go visit your sister for a bit?” Yuki looked to the south, gazing into the trees. “What do you suppose the odds are Shura’s still there?” Yuki whispered.
Shura wasn’t back where Yuki had left her. Undeterred, she continued around the perimeter of the village the other way, seeking until she reached the next ward stone in that direction instead. Shura was there… of course she was. The kitsune sentry sat on the edge of a guard station, looking glumly down at the wardstone laying in the small clearing next to it. Unlike the others Yuki had seen, this one hadn’t shattered. Just like the others, though, it was dead… the energies to power it gone.
“What?” Shura said without looking over at her. “Come back to play some more games with me? Need someone to kick around for a bit?” She shook her head, blue hair swaying back and forth. “I can’t make it work. That’s what you wanted to hear, right? Are you happy now?”
Yuki slowly sank down to the ground, resting her back against one of the trees. “Sorry,” she said after several seconds of awkward silence. “It’s hard. I know that.”
“Spare me your condescending bullshit,” the sentry said, still not looking anywhere near her. “Seemed pretty easy for you.”
“I’ve had a lot of practice,” Yuki admitted.
“With these?” Shura bit back. “I doubt it. This pattern’s younger than I am, and I’ve never seen you before, Yusika.” Yuki didn’t have an answer for that, so she sat there in silence until the sentry continued. “I really did used to be able to do this.”
“Confidence matters a lot,” Yuki admitted as she slowly ran her eyes over the stone. There was something a little different about this one, but it was hard to tell what beside that it was intact. “Holding together a pattern like that is willpower, so it’s probably my fa-”
“You think I don’t know that?” Shura cursed, a bit of anger leaking into in her tone. “You think I haven’t sat in front of this fucking stone for the last two weeks and tried to do it every gods-damned day?” She slapped her hand once on the sentry post. “It happened right here, you know. Bent right over his window. They took me, and invaded my home, and I could do absolutely fucking nothing about it. My ward went out like a candle in the wind when Celeste so much as blew on it, and they skewed me between a pair of them, and I tried to make it good for them. Exactly what do I have to feel confident about?”
“What about down in the vaults?” Yuki asked. “Way I hear it, you managed to do it then.”
“That was different,” Shura muttered. “I had to do something, or everyone died. There was no one else to rely on… it had to be me. Now, they can just look around and find someone better. Rei, or Asana, or Hanabi… they don’t need me. I should just go so no one tries to rely on me and gets themselves hurt again.”
Well. This was different. Yuki wasn’t used to someone else blaming themselves for everything. The lying to herself, the making excuses… this was uncomfortably familiar. The nogitsune was momentarily at a loss. “Yeah, you’re right. No one else has better things to do than get these wards working. No one else has anything but time to learn.” She shook her head. “It takes a certain type of person to spend her life protecting others, Shura… to find fulfillment in standing between them and danger. Seems to me that is what you want… that was why you figured out a way to make it work in the depths, when no one else could. Or am I wrong? Is that not what you want?”
When Shura remained silent, Yuki took it for assent. “Believe it or not, not everyone can do what you do. People who run towards danger when other people run away from it, just so that someone else can be safe are a special breed.”
“Like you?” Shura said, finally looking over at Yuki.
Yuki shrugged uncomfortably. “Once, maybe. But… not anymore. I failed at that once… a lot more spectacularly than you did, I promise.”
“So it’s alright for you to give up but not me?” Shura said, narrowing her eyes. “That seems about right.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Yuki snapped back, the stubborn kitsune making her lingering anger flare up again… although she did have to admit seeing the spirit was nice. “I haven’t given up. I’ve just found… found something else to do, alright? Not my fault the people I tried to protect don’t want me anymore. I’m just telling you the way it is, bitch. You can run away from who you are, but if you do you’ll never stop running.”
Shura made another bubble before it quickly snapped and burst in her lips. Yuki couldn’t resist watching how her tongue picked up and licked off all the remaining chewing gum that remained stuck on the kitsune’s lips. It was… more than a little distracting. “And here I thought you didn’t like games. Seems like that was bullshit, too.”
“I, just…” Yuki tried to explain herself. “I’m not playing games. I’m just here to help. That’s all.” Yuki found herself on the defensive. Maybe that’s all the explanation that was needed at that moment. It was insufficient, but to Yuki, it was enough. The nogitsune still thought she was an idiot for being here… but she knew that if she left Hanei like this, she would be back here every time she closed her eyes until the day she died.
Shura popped her gum again, and Yuki sighed. “Look, I’m sorry, okay? I just… I really want to make sure these wards get done, and make sure they’re done right, so let’s do it.”
“So get them right,” Shura said, gesturing ahead. “What, need an audience to appreciate your greatness? Someone to boast to?”
“Boasting?!” Yuki shot back, growling, her one good ear almost flattening against her skull. “What the fuck do you mean, boasting? I’m not boasting at all, you arrogant little infant, I’m trying to help you! You goddess damned lunatic! Who the hell do you think I am?”
Shure rose and stood, walking towards Yuki… so close that their faces almost touched as she stared into the nogitsune’s eyes. “Good question,” Shura replied back as her small lips made another bubble that touched Yuki’s nose. Yuki then lightly smashed it with her hand, and Shura could only laugh a little… a laugh that didn’t touch her eyes. “Because you’re not who you say you are, Yusika. You handled that ward like it was nothing. The captain won’t stop talking about you. And would you believe me if I told you that the village keeps birth records back since it was settled?” She stared into Yuki’s eyes. “I checked, and there’s never been a Yusika. So… remind me who is playing games with who again?”
Yuki flushed. “It’s… not important. I’m no one, ok? I just want to help. I’m…”
“Uh-huh…?” Shura said, something firming up in her gaze.
“You, you…” Yuki narrowed her eyes.
“Yes?” Shura’s eyes wouldn’t let go of Yuki. She had the kitsune cornered. There was a brief pause. It was long enough for Yuki to reconcile her simmering emotions. She was totally flustered by this kitsune, and was pretty sure she hated her guts.
“You’re just fucking about like a child,” Yuki said as she tried to contain herself. “I’m trying to show you how to fix the wards.”
“Sure,” replied Shura in a rebellious tone, “so you can show off how easy it is? Prove it’s so simple that even an idiot like me can be taught how to do it? Don’t bother. What more do you want from me, Yusika? I already admitted that you can do this and I can’t. Don’t pretend that you could care less about what a fuckup like me can manage.”
“OF COURSE I KNOW HOW TO DO IT!” Yuki yelled to the heavens. “Because I learned how! I learned how these wards work and how to restart them! And you can’t do it because you don’t know shit! You’re just a punk-ass child!” Some of Yuki’s spit landed on Shura’s face, and she shrank back before the furious nogitsune, all the fire going out of her as she cowered. “That’s what I’m trying to fix, you bitch… so let me fix it!”
The sentry was quiet for a moment. “Why are you pretending that I’m anything but worthless when we both know the truth?” Shura whispered. “Why does it matter if I can do this or not? Why the games, Yusika?”
“Fuck you!” Yuki was done with her but she couldn’t move away, no matter how much she tried to ignore her and focus on the wards. She needed the woman to learn, no matter how much she wanted to punch her in the face. “All you need to know about me and ‘games’, Shura, is that whatever I play, I play to win. Are you the same way, or are you happier just sitting there being a loser and feeling sorry for yourself?”
Shura narrowed her eyes, her jaw firming in a defiant line again… finally. “What is your problem, bitch?”
“Right now, my problem is a stubborn sentry that doesn’t want to learn.” This woman was infuriating… but she was almost as much of a mystery to Yuki as Yuki evidently was to her. Meek and cowering, yet defiant and rebellious. “Now, this wardstone isn’t even broken. Let me show you a better way to make the pattern.”
“What makes you think I want to-”
“Shut up and watch!” Yuki snapped, kneeling before the stone. “You want me to stop badgering you, watch and learn, because I’m not letting you leave until you can do it too.” Yuki called up foxfire, letting it flicker across her body before she starting weaving together the pattern of lights in a different order than Shura had. “When you do it like this, they support each other, see?” She dismissed the pattern before it finished infusing the wardstone, letting it fizzle away.
For all her bluster, Shura had been watching intently. “Your fire feels weird,” she observed.
That was because it was witchfire… the differences weren’t obvious upon observation, but they could be sensed. “You’re weird,” Yuki countered. “Now, I’m only going to show you this one more time, and then you’re going to have to try doing it yourself, so you’d better pay close a-”
Shura interrupted her by kneeling down and beginning to work, a look of fierce, furious determination on her face. In the span of thirty seconds, she had perfectly replicated Yuki’s steps from memory – and on the first try, Yuki noted. Despite herself, the nogitsune raised an eyebrow as the pattern sank into the stone and it began to softly glow. Yuki laid one of her hands on it, feeling the quiet hum of power, feeling it buzz with the magic inside of it. “Satisfied now?” Shura said, glaring at her.
“No,” Yuki bit back. “The reward for work well done is more work. There’s two more to energize. Do it again, twice more, and I’ll be satisfied.”
“Good,” Shura said, popping to her feet and starting to walk away, snatching up her spear and clutching it to her chest almost like a lifeline. “Can’t wait to never see you again.”
“And then,” Yuki continued like she hadn’t spoken, “we’re going to meet tomorrow night, and go over this again… and we’re going to talk about how to keep these crappy stones from breaking the first time something with more magical power than a deer comes walking by.”
“Fuck you,” Shura said without any particular strength or anger to the words.
“They say pride isn’t good for a warrior,” Yuki said as she strode after her unwilling pupil. “But when you’re good at something, you’re good at something. And by the time I’m finished with you, I’ll make you something to be proud of.”
The blue haired kitsune rolled her eyes. “Fucking great. Can’t fucking wait.”
The sun was getting ready to set when Yuki made her way up a steep and narrow dirt road that had small fences on either side… recently driven back into the road to make a path, no doubt. There was a loud silence that allowed for Yuki’s mind to travel among the unforgotten memories.
Thoughts of Merielle were always in abundance, of course. The nogitsune didn’t even know what she would do without that woman anymore. The obvious submission of her as a partner alone would have made her perfect, but the selkie was so, so much more… Yuki didn’t understand what she had done to deserve that dumb girl’s love. When Merielle was with her, the world seemed like a brighter place… a place where it was actually possible that things could get better, where mistakes didn’t have to be forever. Even the deep, dark void inside her where her witchfire burned, always hungry, seemed to bother her less when she was around.
It was Yuki’s answer to everything… and that was frightening, because Merielle wasn’t always there. Maya needed her sister… and she definitely did not need to see Yuki. While Merielle spent time with her sister, Yuki was without her… and she had been picking at her scabs for days now and felt ready to explode. She wandered through the village, shaking her head at the strange mix between beauty and ruin, the rubble of destroyed buildings, the shelter tents that had been set up all over the place, and the frequently smashed homes that others were still trying to rebuild their lives in. It was horrible and destroyed and miserable… and achingly familiar anyway. It took more than an invasion of some of the most evil men Yuki had ever heard of to change this place… The tall grass, the trees, the deer flitting through the sides of the forest, were all so similar still that it made her heart ache. Yuki crossed a large anthill as she walked, watching all the foot soldiers marching up and down the hill carrying all kinds of natural trash for their queen. It seemed like a warm thought that at least in the smallest of the animal kingdom, appreciation for the dominant female was still a universal fact. The ants were there to make the queen happy. It made perfect sense.
Everything seemed right. Nature was still calling. And it all seemed perfect as Yuki walked up a few concrete steps and over a small bridge that lay over a very small stream. She could see how the stream was crystal clear as she took a moment to relish it while in the middle of the wooden bridge. Some colorful fish swam freely against the current, and they even looked as though they were about to jump right at her. They didn’t, but they did come to the surface, looking up, disrupting it, creating ripples… and in those ripples, Yuki saw her own reflection.
But not with black fur. With white.
Yuki wrapped her arms around herself, one of her hands reflexively heading up the side of her head at the phantom ache where her ear should be burned. That wasn’t here she was seeing. That woman she saw still had her skin. Still had her ear. Still had her family. She couldn’t be that person again… she was gone. Yuki didn’t want to look, to see her half imagined reflection, but for some odd reason she couldn’t look away. It was the white fur kitsune in the water that was calling out for her. But Yuki didn’t dare answer back. No way. She had to let go. As her eyes began to detach from the reflection below, Yuki sighed up at the darkening sky above. The sun was passing behind the forest and the mountains now… it got dark early in Hanei, especially during the winter, and the sky was already a dark blue, clouds giving way to the glittering stars that began to glow with all their might.
The nogitsune finally made her body finish the trip across the bridge. She wanted to be at Shura’s home before nightfall. It wasn’t because she actually wanted to see the stubborn sentry, but she needed this… the village needed this. She wouldn’t leave them helpless again. Besides, any company was better than being alone with her dark thoughts against the lonely canvas of the dark sky. Too many thoughts, too many memories, could flourish there.
Yuki and Merielle had taken one of the burned-out residences for their own while staying here. It was a wreck, and let too much of the winter air in, but the cold wasn’t too bad and with sleeping bags all it really did was provide all the incentive necessary to pull Merielle extra close at night. From the location Shura had told her, the woman had made the same choice. More than one kitsune had refused to abandon their home, no matter how ruined it had been… considering it a greater defeat to leave. Yuki approved of her choice.
“Oh, there you are!” A sharp, sarcastic voice was heard nearby. “Been waiting for you, Yusika. Joyous of joyous days.”
Yuki turned to where that voice was coming from. Sure enough, Shura sat on the fence overlooking the small garden outside her home. To Yuki’s annoyance, the punky-haired kitsune was still munching on her gum. She spat on the ground beside her before turning back to gaze at Yuki. “You’re late,” she said, her expression locked somewhere between a smile and a scowl. She looked tackier than ever with her gum chewing.
Yuki rolled her eyes. “You only told me the general area,” she said. “It’s not like there are signs.” Breathe. Breathe. Stay calm… you need to teach her. “This your home?”
“In all its glory,” Shura said, yawning, her mouth wide enough for Yuki to see a small blue piece of chewing gum before she opened it. “Don’t tell me you got lost, great one!”
“No, I didn’t!” Yuki insisted as she made her way to Shura’s house, walking across her lush garden. “I made it here, didn’t I?”
Shura’s eyelids lowered a bit as the punky-haired kitsune refused to believe her. “As you say.” She sighed. “Come in,” Shura said calmly as she continued to enjoy Yuki’s complaining. “Dinner is almost ready and I have some tea if you like.” Yuki stood there quietly, her residual anger simmering. Goddess damn it but this woman knew how to piss her off. The nogitsune kept her arms crossed and was still trying to convince herself that teaching Shura was a better idea than arson when she popped her head back out the door. “Well?” Shura asked. “You gonna come in and eat with me? Or you want to stay out there and fix my damned garden?”
“I’m nobody’s fucking gardener!” Yuki snapped back. Shaking her head, she paced after Shura, up and into the house. Yuki followed the girl as they made their way into the genkan, and she actually bumped into the other kitsune… Shura had turned around almost immediately.
This close, the height difference between them was more obvious as she looked down into Shura’s eyes, just inches away, and the nogitsune could easily feel Shura’s sweet breath on her cheeks. Shura gave her chewing gum a few more twirls with her tongue, chewing for another second before opening her mouth to speak. “Your shoes, oh glorious teacher,” Shura said as their eyes continued to be locked on each other. Neither woman moved an inch for what seemed like a long time. Yuki remained frozen until she finally realized that Shura was actually being serious about taking off her shoes.
Yuki gave a small, disbelieving frown. “This place, the whole village, is trashed… and you care that I take my shoes off?” She looked around… there were holes in the wall that the invaders had put there for no reason other than to destroy something that was present and available. “Are you fucking with me?”
“My house, my rules,” Shura said firmly. “Off with them.”
Looking down, Yuki noted that she wasn’t wearing any either. With a sigh, she leaned down. “Sooo sooorrrry…” Yuki responded mockingly, but she did it. As soon as Yuki took off her shoes, Shura turned and continued onward, leading her into the main room of her house. The home might have been nice, once. Yuki glanced around the house and she could identify some of the ancient remnants like the old Ranma panels and the Wagoya in the ceiling… things that she had grown up with. The joints were all ancient techniques without the use of nails. Most of it had been destroyed, but it was obvious that once Shura had collected plenty of art… statues, paintings, carvings. Most of them had been smashed, probably… the places on the walls they should have gone were the only signs of them. The house wasn’t lavish or wealthy by any means, but it must have once been very comfortable. Now it was empty save for the chabudai table neatly set up for dinner.
“Sorry for the mess,” Shura said as she walked to the table, picking up the pot of tea.
There really wasn’t much mess at all. There was damage, but all the rubble and debris has been cleared away from the kitsune’s house. Even after everything, structurally the house was in tiptop shape… there wasn’t a trace of dust or cobwebs. “Meh, sure, whatever,” Yuki replied nonchalantly… but in truth, she found herself quietly impressed with what Shura had done with her home. She, like everyone else, had been ripped out of her house and had her life upended… but she had put her home back together admirably, far better than most had. This house had probably been in her family for generations, belonging to her parents, and their parents, and theirs, going back for hundreds and hundreds of years.
There were two zabuton cushions on the floor on either side of the table. After pouring, Shura lowered herself down onto one of them, inviting Yuki to sit at the other. Yuki gave a small shrug and sank onto her knees, watching the steam rise out of the tea cup.
“So,” Shura opened the conversation. Yuki noticed, however, that she was trembling a little with tension. “I’m glad that you were able to help out with the wards. I… thank you, for that.”
“We’re not done,” Yuki said firmly. “I won’t be staying. You need to learn how to do it… properly.” She took a bite of one of the traditional cookies laid out. This felt… alien in how familiar it was. How traditional. Yuki herself hadn’t lived this traditionally since…
Well, since the last time she had lived in Hanei.
Shura rolled her eyes. “Don’t eat yet. Dinner’s not quite ready. You won’t have enough room for dinner.” She looked down. “Although I guess it makes sense you wouldn’t trust a fuckup like me to make steak properly.”
Yuki sighed. Why the hell was she like this? She could be defiant and angry one second, then almost downright pathetic the next. “Steak?” she asked. “Didn’t take you for the type,” Yuki said as she swallowed her cookies and downed the tea. She was aware that she was eating more of them than she would normally, purely out of a sense of childish rebellion, but… fuck it. She took another.
“Ha!” Shura replied with a hollow laugh. “What makes you say that?”
“I can’t quite pinpoint it,” Yuki replied honestly. “There’s something about you that suggested to me you were more…” Yuki looked around, trying to pick the most appropriate word. “I don’t know, more crude.”
“Yeah…” Yuki said looking around. “You are a strange woman, Shura.”
Shura tilted her head. “How so, outsider?”
Yuki raised an eyebrow. “Here we are, in one of the most civilized setups I’ve sat in in centuries, in one of the cleanest houses in the village, you are about to serve a woman you hate steak when the village is still getting by and rebuilding and it’s probably the nicest meal you’ll have in months… and your fucking hair is dyed blue and you’re still chewing fucking gum!”
Shura deliberately chewed her gum louder. “Don’t like it? Fuck off. You invited yourself over.”
“You know that’s fucking rude,” Yuki continued. “Particularly when we’re having tea.”
“Fucking rude you say?” Shura replied. “And is your language in my home not fucking rude?” Shura took a sip of tea while keeping her eyes on Yuki.
“Ugh…” Yuki responded with disgust as Shura drank her tea. “And you drank it with that gum in your mouth?” Her mouth twitched to show how disgusting it seemed to her.
Shura shot back with a sharp chuckle as she blew a bubble with her gum.
Yuki shook her head. “Fucking gross!” She threw a cloth napkin at the other kitsune. “This is what I’m talking about. You’re damn strange, Shura.”
“Sorry, Yusika,” Shura replied. “Maybe the gum came with the house.”
“Fucking nonsense,” Yuki answered back as her eyes rolled back. “I just still find it hard to believe that you live here,” Yuki replied while her eyes gazed at the tall ceiling. “I imagined your house to be… I dunno…” Yuki’s words were lost.
“What?” Shura demanded to know. “A hut? A cave? That’s where a fuckup like me belongs?”
“I didn’t say that,” Yuki said, growling a little. Why was this bitch so infuriating?
“You certainly implied it,” Shura snapped, glaring.
Yuki narrowed her eyes. “Now listen here, you arrogant little shit. I’m just here to teach you. You want to go on about how useless you are, do it on your own time. Right now, I need you to pretend to be an adult so we-”
In the next room, the oven alarm started going off. Shura popped up like a startled deer before she realized what the sound was and relaxed. “No need to get all worked up,” the blue haired fox said as she rose, giving her body a light stretch as she reached upward before disappearing around the corner to check on the food. “You kinda look cute when you’re mad.”
“Right now, I’m just annoyed,” Yuki snapped back as her blood boiled. “You should see me after you finish pissing me off!” Yuki forced herself to pick up her tea and take a long drink. Calm. Calm. By all the Kami she would be glad to be rid of this bitch.
Shura came back in with several serving plates loaded with steak and rice and some sauces. Yuki noted, with grudging respect, that she was balancing some of them on her tails, so at least they still trained the sentries in how to be warriors. She finished her tea before pouring a second cup, then picked up a pair of lacquered chopsticks and got to work.
They ate in blessed silence for a while, long enough for Yuki to begin calming down. She tried to remind herself that the village had just been attacked… that Shura and the others had just been introduced to how nightmarishly cruel the worst of the world could be. Self esteem issues ought to be common… she should be more understanding. She just wished Shura didn’t make it so damn hard. “So,” she said at last, trying to keep her voice from betraying any impatience or annoyance. “I’m led to understand you made the stone that was by your sentry post?”
Shura froze with her chopsticks half of the way to her mouth for a second before she finished, chewing and swallowing before she answered. “Yeah. I made it.”
Yuki nodded. “We’ll start with that.” She took another bite herself. “I want to see more about how you’re doing the ward these days… I can work from that… then we’ll work on improving it. I’ll need to see the diagram,” Yuki said. “Hopefully it wasn’t destroyed. If it was, we’ll have to m-”
“Diagram?” Shura said, raising an eyebrow. “What diagram?”
Yuki waved one hand in a dismissive gesture. “The diagram of the foxfire pattern,” she clarified. “The one you used to ma-”
“There is no pattern,” Shura said, narrowing her eyes. “You fucking with me again?”
The tone of her voice made Yuki want to lash out. Instead, she forced herself to take three deep breaths before responding. “No… you work complex weavings from a pattern,” Yuki said slowly. “So you can reproduce them.” She looked up and paused as she saw the blank look on the blue-haired kitsune’s face. “Are you seriously telling me,” the nogitsune said quietly, “That you made up that pattern yourself?”
“Of course not!” Shura rolled her eyes. “I just remember it.”
“You remember a complex foxfire ritual, meant to last for hours without input,” Yuki said, tone deadpan. She raised one eyebrow. “Just off the top of your head.”
“What’s the big fucking deal?” Shura replied, looking increasingly annoyed. “You did it.”
“You had just shown me the pattern,” Yuki pointed out. “I was just fixing your mistakes.”
“The hell’s the difference?” Shura asked, indignant.
Quite a bit. Yuki looked up at the punky kitsune with the sloppy demeanor and manners who kept a traditional, beautiful house and who, apparently, was improvising and memorizing new foxfire illusion patterns, and smiled a little. Interesting indeed. She took another bite of steak. “Maybe this isn’t going to be a complete waste of my time,” she said with a smile.